Interview with R. H. Wassum
My dad came to Norton after I was born in Norfolk. They brought me to Norton in 1900. I lived in Norton until I was 25. The summer after World War II, they transferred me down to Marshalls Branch and made a portal down there. It was getting so far for the men to travel. The union got a contract here where they had to pay the men from the time he starts in the drift mouth until he comes out. Well, they were having to haul them entirely too far and they moved it down there where they just took them a short distance.
Do you belong to the union?
Yes, 1933 until today.
When you first came to Jenkins, who was your boss?
A fellow by the name of Dwight Marshall. He was the machine shop foreman, and his father was S. L. Marshall and he lived in this house and was one of the blacksmiths. Before he lived in this house, another blacksmith that was here when I came was John Fairchild, Walter Shubert’s father-in-law.
Where was the first place you and your wife lived here in Jenkins?
In Henry Wright’s, the first big double house on High Street. I rented some rooms.
When you first came to Jenkins, how did High Street look?
Well, it hasn’t changed much except all these houses were fenced with wire fences and there was a boardwalk all the way out, and one going up through the yards. Up behind those houses on the hill, there was a boardwalk behind them. Some of the houses had bathrooms and some didn’t. The ones that didn’t have bathrooms had to have water in the kitchen, but just before I came here they had outside “spickets” and people just had to carry their water.
Did they have high school here?
Yes, but they had high school in McRoberts. I don’t know how they handled — like the Burdine children — transporting them.
How did Jenkins look in 1922?
Well, it had a concrete street down the middle of it and maple trees along between the street and walk and we used to go down there and set on benches under the trees. Several band directors used to be here. The company used to keep a band director working around here somewhere. One was a friend of mine, Hubert Hutchins, and others were Eddie Lopas and William H. Frye. He was Albert Farley’s father-in-law. They would always give them a job doing something. Lopas and Hutchins worked in the shop. These band masters would get down in that bandstand in the park and play on Saturday and on holidays. We didn’t have any building except the big office. It was a big place. The park had hedges planted all around it and flowers, mostly grass and a place to get a drink.
[Mr. Wassum talking about John L. Lewis]
We were on a wildcat strike and he came in here to try to get us to go back to work. I watched him around town here and spoke to him, heard him talk to people — nicest man you ever saw in your life, just as friendly to everyone, the kids and all. When he went up to the ball diamond to make a speech to us about going back to work, I never saw a man change so much from man to animal in my life! He wanted to know how he could represent us when we wouldn’t do what the contract called for. He said we made them a promise and you won’t do what I promised you would do. When he got through talking up there, those men had already gone to work. Everybody on the evening shift had slipped and gone and got their clothes on and gone to work.
What kind of a looking fellow was he?
Well, he was tall, a big wide face and eyebrows the looked like haystacks sticking up over his eyes. I understand he told a fellow one time, one of the bosses got to making fun of his eyebrows, and he told the boss, “Listen, you wouldn’t be half as scared of me as you are if I didn’t have these eyebrows!”
Did any other president of the union ever come in here?
Not that I know of. Joe Yablonski was in here not too long ago, but I never did see him.
What did the people think when they started selling the houses?
Well, when we first heard that, we didn’t believe it until we found out why and we began to believe it.
How did you feel about it?
Well, I wanted to buy my house. I tried to be the first one here to sign up for a house in this district, but I think I missed it by one or two.
Who beat you, do you remember.
No, I don’t remember.
What kind of payments did they set up for you?
I think it was $16 or $18 a month and they cut it out at the office and I didn’t even know I was paying for it.
How much rent did you pay when you first got here?
At one time I was paying $16 monthly.
Did you have electricity?
When I came here, there was lights in all the houses, but you didn’t have any fixtures and you would buy what they called an ice box and the company wagon, ice wagon, came around and you’d buy 50 pounds of ice and put it in the top of that and that was to keep your stuff all day. A man by the name of Bill Brown used to drive the ice wagon.
How often did he come around?
Every day except on Sunday.
How did the inside of the houses look when you first came here?
The company would fix it up for you inside any way you wanted it. They would paper some rooms and paint some. Most of them was papered and except the kitchen and they would let you pick the color you wanted and they would fix it for you.
When you first started working here, how much were you making a day or shift?
I think I came over here for 99¢ an hour.
When you first came here from Norton, how did you get here?
I had to catch a train out of Norton to St. Paul, St. Paul change train on to another railroad up to Elkhorn City and there onto another railroad to Pikeville and to another railroad up to here. You couldn’t make it one day. You had to stay over somewhere. There wasn’t many cars here at that time. Only about two.
Who did they belong to?
The only one I remember was Henry Wright. He had an old Packard and a new Dodge.
Do you remember the 4th of July celebration?
Yes, they usually had some fireworks on the side of the lake or something.
Did you know Bad John Wright?
I’ve seen him hundreds of times riding up and down the street on a horse, but I never did have any occasion to talk to him.
Did you know Doc Taylor?
I knew his son, but I didn’t know Doc Taylor. His son was Sylvan Taylor and he had a grandson, Tom Lee Taylor, that I used to play with.
Who was the superintendent of the mines when you came?
I think it was George Hayes. He replaced John Smith.
What happened to John Gordon Smyth?
He had a mind of his own. They had a bunch of men here but they are dead and gone now. George Christopher was coal inspector. Jake Smith was section foreman and ended up as coal inspector.
Who were your bosses down here at the shop?
Shop foreman was Dwight Marshall and then Damon Duncan. Maintenance was Pat Flowery. Adam Gilmore, Blake was the last until Gene Auxier.
Do you remember anything unusual or strange that happened to you while you worked at the shop?
When Mr. Hayes was General Manager here, my machine got to the place where it would shock me pretty bad when you opened the controller up on it. I told my boss about it and he came in there with a brand new pair of shoes on that was nice and dry and it wouldn’t shock him. He was going to fire me because I said it shocked me and it didn’t shock him. I didn’t tell him what the trouble was but they got mad. Mr. Hayes come along and started to touch the machine and I told him not to put his hands on it and he said why. I told him. He went out and jumped on the boss. The boss come in. He was going to fire me for telling the boss a lie. I shut the machine off and I said, “put your hand on the machine and see what happens” and jerked the controller open and it liked to killed him. I thought I had killed him.
One of the funniest things that happened was a boy living right here in town Houlie Wright. He was just a little thing and his daddy, Henry, lived down there where Elva Gambill lives. Henry came down there one day and I was working in the shop. He wanted to know if he could bring an old Ford car down there and turn it upside down to let a little gear that had fallen down in the motor fall out. If I don’t do that, I’ll have to take the motor out and turn it upside down. I said, “I don’t think it would hurt anything.” He turned that Ford upside down and Houlie came along and saw it while Henry was trying to get the gear out. Houlie slipped up to the house and told his mother that Poppie’s down there by the machine shop with that old Ford turned upside down at the bottom of that hill and she came down through there wanting to know if Henry was dead. He was working on the car and he looked up at her and said, “Nannie, what’s the matter with you?”
She said he come down there and told me you was over the hill with this Ford turned upside down. “I am, but I done it myself.” She looked around at Houlie and he was standing there watching and she took two or three steps toward him and he backed off. The last time I saw Houlie he was going around the recreational building towards Lakeside.
This article first appeared in “History of Jenkins Kentucky” Compiled In Honor Of The Sixtieth Anniversary Homecoming Celebration 1912‑1973 by the Jenkins Area Jaycees.
The authors and publishers of the 1973 printing failed to include a copyright notice and according to our understanding of copyright law it is now in the public domain.
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I have attended the University of Kentucky. I have an Associates Degree from Hazard Community College and Technical School. I have also attended the University of Pikeville. I have taken several classes in Journalism as well as in the Appalachian History, Literature, and Sociology during my time at those schools.
I was born in Florida and grew up in Burdine, Kentucky. I have been married to David W. Sergent since May 4, 2013. I have two children and four grandchildren from a previous marriage. I currently live in Tennessee but my hope is to one day come back home to live in the beautiful mountains once more.